The Big 12/SEC Challenge shook up the status quo of conference play over the weekend, and despite all the buzz around the Big 12’s strength and depth this season, it was the SEC that made a statement by winning the challenge, 6–4 (and that was with first-place team Auburn not participating). So it was quite a good week for the SEC, which not only scored marquee victories over West Virginia and Oklahoma but also was on the winning end of the challenge’s two biggest routs. Elsewhere, the door was opened for a couple teams to make their return to our power rankings following a long absence.
1. Villanova (20–1)
Last Week (1): beat Marquette
Next Week: vs. Creighton, vs. Seton Hall
The Wildcats got past Marquette in Milwaukee in their only game of the last week, but the big news out of Philadelphia was that starting guard Phil Booth was lost indefinitely with a broken bone in his right hand. Booth’s injury shortens an already-short Villanova rotation and puts more pressure and responsibility on sophomore Donte DiVincenzo and freshman Collin Gillespie while he’s sidelined. Gillespie missed several games himself not too long ago also due to a broken hand, and he hasn’t done a ton in his four games since returning. But he saw 19 minutes of action in ‘Nova’s first game without Booth—his most since the season opener—and the Wildcats are going to need bigger contributions from the freshman if they’re going to maintain their remarkably high offensive efficiency level in Booth’s absence.
2. Purdue (21–2)
Last Week (2): beat Michigan, beat Indiana
Next Week: vs. Maryland, at Rutgers
The Boilermakers haven’t lost since Nov. 23, an impressive accomplishment after originally getting off to one of the more disappointing starts in the season’s opening two weeks. In their recent win over Michigan, senior Vincent Edwards poured in a career-high 30 points and posted his highest offensive rating (170) this season. His performance illustrated just how good Edwards has been in Big Ten play so far, where he’s actually improved on his numbers from nonconference. Edwards’s true-shooting percentage, assist rate, turnover rate and two- and three-point percentages have all improved in league play despite the increased level of competition, one of the reasons Purdue has started 10–0 and has a chance at running the table.
3. Virginia (20–1)
Last Week (3): beat Duke
Next Week: vs. Louisville, at Syracuse
The Cavaliers got their best win yet by beating Duke at Cameron Indoor for the first time since 1995. Virginia forced the Blue Devils into 16 turnovers, on essentially one-quarter of their possessions, and held them to only four made three-pointers to get it done. The Hoos also became the first team this season to hold Duke’s mighty offense to under 1.0 points per possession—though just barely, at 0.97. It’s not surprising that UVA was able do what no one else has done this Blue against Devils squad, and the reward for its big win was leaving Durham affirmatively in command of the ACC race. Virginia is now two games up on Louisville—which still faces the Cavaliers twice plus Duke, UNC, Florida State, NC State and Virginia Tech once—and three up on the Blue Devils and Clemson.
4. Michigan State (20–3)
Last Week (5): beat Wisconsin, beat Maryland
Next Week: vs. Penn State, at Indiana, at Iowa
It was a tale of two halves for the Spartans in their win at Maryland on Sunday, with the first half seeing them stray from many of their calling cards, namely three-point shooting, field-goal defense and an overall advantage inside. But facing a 13-point halftime deficit, MSU turned it on almost immediately in the second half and looked far more like its fearsome self despite an overall 3-for-13 shooting day from Miles Bridges. Notably, the Spartans rebounded 48.7% of their misses on the way to collecting 16 second-chance points, including eight by the player with the nation’s top offensive rebounding rate, Nick Ward.
5. Duke (19–3)
Last Week (4): lost to Virginia, beat Notre Dame
Next Week: at St. John’s
Let’s talk about Grayson Allen. The senior posted his second-lowest offensive rating of the season in Duke’s home loss to Virginia on Saturday, scoring just five points on 2-for-8 shooting with three assists despite playing all 40 minutes. Allen hasn’t been overly consistent in ACC play, and against the stringy Hoos’ defense he attempted only two three-pointers after coming into the day averaging 7.1 per game during conference action. The Blue Devils can’t afford to get so little out of Allen, but he bounced back with an 18-point, eight-assist effort on 7-for-12 shooting against Notre Dame Monday night. Which version of Allen will we see more of going forward?
6. Kansas (18–4)
Last Week (6): beat Texas A&M, beat Kansas State
Next Week: vs. Oklahoma State
The Jayhawks took care of business this week, including snapping in-state rival Kansas State’s four-game win streak. Against the Wildcats, senior Svi Mykhailiuk posted his third straight 20+-point scoring effort, marking the first time he’s done that in his career. Mykhailiuk continues to have a breakout senior year, averaging 17.0 points, 4.1 rebounds and 2.8 assists while shooting 47.9% from three and having an effective field-goal percentage of 59.9%, all of which are career highs. Mykhailiuk’s emergence as a leading scorer alongside Devonte’ Graham has been huge for this Kansas squad, especially in light of the fact that it never did get Billy Preston on the court.
7. Xavier (20–3)
Last Week (8): beat Marquette, beat St. John’s
Next Week: vs. Georgetown
A lot of the question around Xavier’s legitimacy as a true contender centers around its defense and whether it’s good enough. The Musketeers rank 48th nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency, per kenpom.com, but that’s actually an improvement compared to earlier in the season. Outside of a poor showing against St. John’s a few weeks ago, Xavier’s defense has actually been holding up as one of the most efficient in Big East play. It ranks second, behind only Creighton, in defensive efficiency, and it’s held four of its last five opponents below 1.0 PPP—including Marquette, one of the nation’s top offenses.
8. Arizona (18–4)
Last Week (9): beat Colorado, beat Utah
Next Week: at Washington State, at Washington
The Wildcats have the feeling of a team that’s going to get clipped again soon, but for now, they keep finding a way to win—and without Rawle Alkins, who’s missed three of the last four games with a foot injury but might return to the lineup against Wazzu. With Alkins out, Dusan Ristic has picked up some of the slack on the offensive end, including a career-high 23-point performance against Utah that included making all three of his perimeter attempts. DeAndre Ayton and Allonzo Trier, meanwhile, are second and third (respectively) in the Pac-12 in true-shooting percentage during conference play to help lead what’s been the league’s top team in effective field-goal percentage.
9. Cincinnati (19–2)
Last Week (10): beat Temple, beat Memphis
Next Week: vs. Houston, at Connecticut
If it weren’t for what Virginia is doing defensively this season, a lot more attention would probably be being paid to the Bearcats, whose current 84.0 adjusted points allowed per 100 possessions is better than the mark of any year-end No. 1 defense in the kenpom.com era. Instead, Cincinnati is only second in the country behind UVA’s 80.8, but it’s closer to the Hoos than it is to the third-ranked school (Texas Tech, 89.9). The knock on the Bearcats remains their strength of schedule, which ranks 208th overall on kenpom. Even in the AAC, the they’ve had a rather favorable slate in the first half of conference play, with four total games against Houston and Wichita State and a road trip to SMU all still ahead. Will anyone crack this defense?
10. Auburn (20–2)
Last Week (15): beat Missouri, beat LSU, beat Ole Miss
Next Week: vs. Vanderbilt
At 20–2 overall and alone in first by a two-game margin in the conference, Auburn is at the peak of what suddenly seems like SEC basketball fever. The Tigers’ success this season has been so surprising that they weren’t even scheduled to be part of the Big 12/SEC Challenge, instead playing (and routing) LSU just three days after cruising past a top-50 Missouri team on the road and three days before they would get their first win in Oxford in 10 years. Bryce Brown and Mustapha Heron continue to lead an offense that ranks comfortably in front of the rest of the conference in SEC action in efficiency, largely on the back of its strong three-point shooting and low turnover rate.
11. Oklahoma (16–5)
Last Week (7): lost to Alabama, beat Baylor
Next Week: at Texas, vs. West Virginia
The Sooners split games this week and needed 44 points from Trae Young to beat Baylor, but let’s talk about someone else: Khadeem Lattin. The lone senior and one of just a few players who are left from Oklahoma’s Final Four team, Lattin never quite broke out the way some hoped, but he’s having a productive final year both offensively and defensively. In his last two games he’s scored 18 and 15 points on combined 13-for-17 shooting, including adding 12 rebounds and four blocks against the Bears. Lattin has been used on just 14.9% of possessions when on the floor this year, but he leads the Sooners in offensive rating at 128.9 and is posting the conference’s third-highest block rate and steal rate in Big 12 play.
12. Texas Tech (17–4)
Last Week (12): beat South Carolina
Next Week: vs. Texas, at TCU
The only Big 12 team to win on the road during the Big 12/SEC Challenge, the Red Raiders are still in the thick of the conference race. The big question though might be whether this team has enough offense to actually win the Big 12. Per kenpom.com, Tech boasts the nation’s third most adjusted efficient defense, but its offense is 55th nationally and ranks ninth out of 10 teams in conference play. The Red Raiders have been held under 1.0 PPP in all three of their Big 12 losses, including by an Iowa State defense that ranks last in the conference in efficiency and 138th nationally. Keenan Evans is a legitimate talent, and sometimes he’s enough to carry the team, but when he’s struggling (like in losses to the Cyclones and Texas) there’s often not a lot of reason for optimism.
13. Wichita State (17–4)
Last Week (14): beat UCF, beat Tulsa
Next Week: at Temple
Should the Shockers be worried about Landry Shamet? Probably not in the long run, but after hitting 52% of his threes through the first 18 games, the sophomore has gone ice cold, going 1 for 6, 0 for 6 and 0 for 6 in the last three games. Against Houston no one stepped up in his stead as Wichita dropped its second straight, but it got back on track in the last week thanks to the contributions of others. Shaquille Morris scored 19 off the bench after being replaced by Markis McDuffie in the starting lineup to help beat UCF, then against Tulsa sophomore Austin Reaves became an unlikely hero when he drained his first seven attempts from deep as part of a 23-point night.
14. Saint Mary’s (21–2)
Last Week (17): beat BYU, beat Portland
Next Week: vs. San Francisco, at San Diego
The Gaels inched closer to a potential WCC title by completing a regular-season sweep of BYU, the team that was most likely to cause trouble for either them or Gonzaga. The Zags still have both games against the Cougars left on their slate, so Saint Mary’s has both a one-game edge in the standings and a schedule advantage going forward. One of the areas the Gaels have slipped in defensively this season has been opponents’ two-point percentage, but they’ve shown evidence of tightening up in that area in league play. In its most recent win over Portland, Saint Mary’s held the Pilots to just a 15 of 40 mark (37.5%) inside the arc, and overall in conference play 47.4% two-point defense has been an improvement from their 50.2% overall mark.
15. Tennessee (15–5)
Last Week (18): beat Iowa State
Next Week: vs. LSU, vs. Mississippi
Winners of six of their last seven and all the way up to 10th on kenpom.com, the Vols took care of Iowa State pretty handedly at Hilton Coliseum over the weekend. Perhaps most encouraging was that Tennessee held the Cyclones to just 0.71 PPP, its best mark against an opponent this season, and collected 33 defensive rebounds on 80.5% of Iowa State’s misses. Defensive rebounding has generally been a weak spot for the Vols this season, where they rank ninth in SEC play and 285th overall.
16. Ohio State (19–5)
Last Week (13): lost to Penn State, beat Indiana
Next Week: vs. Illinois
The Buckeyes’ first Big Ten loss (and first of 2018) came in heartbreaking fashion on Tony Carr’s buzzer beater, but the game only got to that point because of an uncharacteristically poor defensive night by Ohio State. Penn State racked up 1.32 PPP on the night and caught fire from deep, connecting on 11 of 14 three-point attempts. It was OSU’s fourth game in nine days, which means fatigue was likely a factor, and it looked much better in a win over Indiana Tuesday where it held a Hoosier team playing in its fourth game in eight days to just 36.4% from the field.
17. Kentucky (17–5)
Last Week (23): beat West Virginia, beat Vanderbilt
Next Week: at Missouri, vs. Tennessee
The young Wildcats had a potentially season-defining moment when they rallied back from a 17-point second-half deficit to stun West Virginia in Morgantown. A comeback seemed almost improbable at halftime given the fact that Kentucky trailed by 14, had turned it over 11 times in the first half against the Mountaineer press and was playing in a hostile road environment. UK’s second-half response—which included 19 points by Kevin Knox, 11 by Hamidou Diallo, only five turnovers and a rebounding margin of +16—was a pivotal turn of events by a team that not too long ago had gotten physically out-toughed and outworked in a late collapse at South Carolina. These Wildcats are growing up, even if flaws remain.
18. West Virginia (16–5)
Last Week (11): lost to Kentucky
Next Week: at Iowa State, vs. Kansas State, at Oklahoma
For as impressive as Kentucky’s comeback was, it was the opposite for the Mountaineers, who blew a golden opportunity on their home floor to really lay the hammer down and make a statement. After shooting 47.1% from the floor (and 7 of 12 from three) in the first half, largely on the back of Jevon Carter, WVU’s shooting struggles returned in a big way in a second half where almost nothing went right. This could have been somewhat mitigated had the Mountaineers not also lost control of the boards, collecting just four defensive rebounds while letting the Wildcats collect 13 offensive ones. This was a loss that could haunt West Virginia for some time, especially considering it has now dropped four of its last five.
19. Gonzaga (19–4)
Last Week (19): beat Portland, beat San Francisco
Next Week: vs. San Diego, vs. BYU
Per kenpom.com, the West Coast conference boasts two of the nation’s top six adjusted efficient offenses in Saint Mary’s (fourth) and the Zags (sixth). But if you isolate that to just WCC games, it’s the Bulldogs who have been a clear head-and-shoulders above everyone else. Gonzaga is scoring 125.9 points per 100 possessions in league play, which leads No. 2 Saint Mary’s by 7.4 points and No. 3 BYU by 15.7. The Zags have incredibly balanced efficiency, practically owning a monopoly on the WCC’s 10-highest offensive ratings. Zach Norvell is first, Rui Hachimura is third, Josh Perkins is fourth, Johnathan Williams is sixth, Killian Tillie is seventh and Silas Melson is eighth. Best of luck, opposing West Coast defenses.
20. Rhode Island (18–3)
Last Week (25): beat Fordham, beat Duquesne, beat UMass
Next Week: at VCU
The Rams are 10–0 in the Atlantic 10 after a three-win week, but over their next three games they’ll get their first crack at the trio of teams (VCU, Davidson, Richmond) closest to them in the A-10 standings. In their recent win over UMass, sophomore point guard Jeff Dowtin had one of his finest games of the season, scoring 19, dishing out 10 assists with just one turnover and hitting 3 of 4 threes. Dowtin is leading the conference in A-10 play in assist rate at a whopping 35.2%, and he’s turned the ball over just three total times in the last four games despite averaging over 32 minutes in those contests.
21. Arizona State (16–5)
Last Week (15): lost to Utah, beat Colorado
Next Week: at Washington, at Washington State
The roller coaster continues. The Sun Devils have now traded wins and losses over their last seven games to keep them in the middle of a mediocre Pac-12, and any hope at the regular-season crown has all but vanished. ASU is suffering from some of the problems inside that plagued it last season and has seen its two-point percentage dip to just 46% in conference play, which ranks 11 out of 12 teams. Meanwhile, Sun Devils opponents are hitting 51.7% of their shots inside the arc, with both marks reflecting a departure from the comparative success they had in those areas during nonconference action. An exception has been center De'Quon Lake, whose 63.4% mark on 41 two-point attempts in Pac-12 play is third in the conference.
22. Clemson (18–4)
Last Week (NR): beat Georgia Tech, beat North Carolina
Next Week: at Wake Forest
The Tigers’ thorough road defeat to Virginia just over a week ago was in a way an important litmus test for them. It was Clemson’s first game since the career of senior Donte Grantham ended due to an ACL tear, and getting trounced by 25 seemed like a clear sign that it wasn’t up to the challenge of the ACC’s best. But that kind of loss on the heels of losing their second-leading scorer could’ve been the start of a downward spiral. Instead, the Tigers toughed out a narrow road win over Georgia Tech before returning home to earn their first win over UNC since 2010 and only their second in their last 22 tries against the Tar Heels. Even without Grantham, this team still has plenty of toughness and veteran leadership in the likes of Marcquise Reed, Shelton Mitchell and Gabe DeVoe.
23. Florida State (16–5)
Last Week (NR): beat Georgia Tech, beat Miami
Next Week: at Wake Forest, at Louisville
It’s been a while since the Seminoles have appeared here, but they’ve won four of five in ACC play to put themselves back onto the national radar. FSU sits at 5–4 in the conference race despite the fact that its tied with Pittsburgh for the worst defensive efficiency in ACC play, giving up 111.3 points per 100 possessions. It has yet to hold an ACC team to below 1.0 PPP, but on the flip side its offense has been the second-most efficient in league play, behind only Duke. Terance Mann is having the best season of his career, and he and Braian Angola both rank in the top 10 in offensive rating during ACC action.
24. Louisville (16–5)
Last Week (NR): lost to Miami, beat Wake Forest
Next Week: at Virginia, vs. Florida State, vs. Syracuse
Don’t look now, but the Cardinals, whose on-court play has largely flown under the radar this season, are alone in second in the ACC. Now, there’s some real caveats to that: for one thing, Louisville has played two less games than third-place teams Duke and Clemson, and for another, the rest of its schedule is brutal. That starts with a road trip to first-place Virginia Wednesday night, which will feature the No. 1 and 2 defenses in ACC play (the Cavaliers, however, are first by a large margin). If the Cardinals are going to make a serious play for the ACC crown, they’re going to need more consistency from Ray Spalding and V.J. King offensively.
25. USC (17–6)
Last Week (NR): beat Stanford, beat California
Next Week: at UCLA
The Trojans have quietly crept into the Pac-12 title race, where we all thought they’d be at the beginning of the season, thanks to an 8–2 start to conference play. Now, though, comes the litmus test, with four of their next six games on the road, including their next three—against UCLA, Arizona State and Arizona. USC has managed to right some of its defensive woes from earlier in the season and sits at second in defensive efficiency in Pac-12 play, in large part because it’s generating turnovers on 24.1% of opponents’ possessions and leading the league in defensive free-throw rate. Both of those things will be put to the test by their upcoming trio of opponents.
DROPPED OUT: North Carolina, Florida, TCU, Nevada
NEXT FIVE OUT: Nevada, North Carolina, Kansas State, Alabama, Michigan
(For this exercise, the definition of ‘mid-major’ is any team outside the Power 5, Big East, American and Atlantic-10.)
1. Saint Mary’s: Jock Landale keeps humming, having recorded a monster 32-point, 12-rebound, three-block performance in a win over BYU.
2. Gonzaga: The nation’s leader in two-point percentage made 66.7% and 61.8% of its twos in its pair of games in the last week.
3. New Mexico State: There’s a very real chance the Aggies and their top-10 efficient defense could run the table in their eight remaining WAC games.
4. Nevada: The Wolf Pack dropped a double overtime heartbreaker to Wyoming, but they still control their own destiny in the Mountain West.
5. Louisiana Lafayette: The 19–3 Ragin' Cajuns are about to hit the road for three straight games away from home.